First-time novelist Emma Healey was courted with tinned peaches and forget-me-nots when her book sparked a bidding war, took her first careers advice from the film Clueless, and has fallen in love with Norwich.
Emma Healey, author of Elizabeth is missing. Picture: Martin Figura
Nine publishers vied for Emma Healey’s first novel and next week the national launch of the book, already being hailed a masterpiece, takes place in Norwich.
Emma always assumed she would have to beg publishers to take her book but instead looked on, bemused, as they competed for her attention.
Publishers wooed her by staging elaborate meetings, based around the themes of Elizabeth Is Missing.
Penguin, which eventually won the right to publish the book, gave her hand-written notes from staff at all levels of the business who had loved the book. Another publisher sent her an old-fashioned suitcase packed with some of the possessions and passions, ranging from pearls to tinned peaches, of her heroine Maud. Then there was the meeting she arrived at, to find Maud’s favourite music being played, missing woman posters all over the building directing her to a room full of forget-me-nots. “I was nearly in tears,” admitted Emma.
Elizabeth Is Missing has already been sold and translated around the world and has just been voted pick of the month by library staff across the USA.
It tells the story of an elderly woman whose friend vanishes. Maud sets out to solve the mystery of her missing friend, while battling her own dementia, and discovers unsettling parallels with the disappearance of her sister, half a century earlier.
Emma is just 29, but her ability to write with the voice of an old woman whose mind is being destroyed by dementia has been hailed as astounding and likened to Mark Haddon’s portrayal of an autistic boy in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
“It’s incredibly flattering,” said Emma. “Reading him helped me realise you could write a mystery without having a detective.”
When we meet, in a Norwich café, the first thing she notices is how our window table will be wonderful for people watching when she is old. So does she have a particular affinity with much older people?
She says some of the inspiration for the book came from her grandmothers.
One is severely affected by dementia, the other had always been good at telling stories and anecdotes. Emma wrote down the stories, both to have something to remember her grandmother by, and as something to talk about when she visited her in hospital as she lay dying.
Her other grandmother no longer knows who Emma is, but was able to read an early draft of part of the book. “She said she didn’t like it because it was too real,” said Emma, who took the criticism as an indication that the novel was beginning to work.
Emma also scoured manuals about caring for people with dementia and admitted: “I even went with a friend to visit a relative once and sat taking notes. Isn’t that awful?!”
Self-deprecating, friendly and funny, Emma still seems shocked by the runaway success of Elizabeth is Missing.
She was working as a web administrator at the University of East Anglia when the fairytale began.
She had been writing since childhood but never saw it as a career option.
“I told people that I was going to be a litigator. I really had very little idea of what a litigator was, but I had heard the term in Clueless. The dad was a litigator and it seemed like a proper grown-up job!” said Emma.
In fact she left school at 16 with very few qualifications and went on to art school, where she studied for degree in book art which included crafts such as bookbinding and embossing. “But I was terrible at that too!” she said.
She found a job in marketing, but continued writing in secret and applied to do a creative writing course at the University of East Anglia.
“I didn’t admit to having any aspirations because it was hugely embarrassing,” said Emma. “I felt like it was a dirty secret that I was going home and writing things. I would say I was going to do an MA and hope they wouldn’t ask about the subject!
“It’s like saying you want to be a pop star, or astronaut. You’re supposed to grow out of it! Plenty of people say ‘I’m writing a book.’ I didn’t want to be that person.”
She found her voice alongside her character, Maud. “Until then everything seemed to be about a woman in her 20s living in London and it was so boring! I didn’t want to read it myself, so why anyone else would…!”
“I thought writing about dementia would be cathartic and imagined that if I knew enough about it, it would become less scary, but now I’m absolutely terrified of my parents getting it.”
So has she discovered anything positive about old age?
“Maybe you can get away with bad behaviour a bit, but although I don’t want to be depressing about it, not really. I look forward to a time when you are not constantly thinking about the way you look, but maybe you still are…”
She is discovering that being a successful writer demands an unsettling mix of being intensely solitary and hugely gregarious, of meticulous planning and unimagined chains of events.
To keep track of the many strands of a mystery straddling half a century, being investigated by a heroine with a disintegrating personality, meant her Norwich home was strewn with plans and maps of her imagined house and town. She used different fonts for each period and character, to keep track of the many voices.
And as the book took shape she submitted parts of it as her MA dissertation. It was put forward for an award and a literary agent involved in the judging process asked to see it when it was finished. It was sold in Canada before it even had a title.
Since then Elizabeth is Missing has been sold to 20 countries including China, Brazil and Turkey and translated into 18 languages. Television rights have been snapped up and the American deal included Emma’s second book too, which is something of a problem looming beyond the whirlwind of launches and interviews, tours and signings.
“It’s not even started. It’s a seriously vague idea in my head!” admitted Emma.
The UK launch of Elizabeth is Missing is in the Norwich branch of Waterstones on Tuesday, June 3.
Emma has fallen in love with her adopted home city. “Norwich is where the book really became what it is,” she said. “It’s so nice. How can one ever leave? It’s such a great place. I was such a London-centric person I didn’t leave London to live until I was 25 and I came here and it was like ‘Oh this is why people don’t live in London!’ Norwich is amazing. It’s busy enough. It’s just hipster enough. You can get good coffee and there are interesting shops but it’s not unbalanced. You don’t feel it’s too studenty or too local. And there are about a million writers in Norwich so it’s not difficult to find other writers to talk to.”
Having found Norwich, she is slightly reluctant to leave.
“You know that bit when you get back from a holiday and think ‘that was lovely’ that’s my favourite moment. Most of the time I’m actually away I’m anxious!” said Emma. “I’m quite nervous about it all – and scared I’m going to swear in a television interview!”
Emma has another reason for launching the book in Norwich’s Waterstones. She not only had part-time jobs in branches in both London and Norwich but also met her boyfriend, a fellow UEA student, in Norwich’s Royal Arcade.
“He was a history student. I was a Christmas temp.” Now the store is a Jamie’s restaurant and the couple returned for an anniversary dinner.
“I never ever said I was writing when I worked there, but I did use to daydream about where on the shelf my book would go!”
What did not cross her mind was that her book would be destined for a place among the best sellers!
• Elizabeth is Missing is being published by Penguin and the UK edition will be launched at Waterstones in Norwich on Tuesday, June 3 at 7.30pm. The free event includes refreshments and the opportunity to buy a signed copy of Elizabeth is Missing – recommended retail price £12.99.
• Emma will also be appearing in the book department at Jarrold in Norwich on Tuesday, June 17 at 6pm. Tickets are £3, including a glass of wine, with £3 redeemable off purchases of her book.
This first appeared in the Eastern Daily Press on May 27th 2014.